Iconic Miss America as a Representation and Rejection of Ideal Beauty in the Mid-Century (8/10)

“Miss America, 1953,” 1. New Jersey State Archives; Department of State. http://www.nj.gov/state/historical/it-happened-here/ihhnj-er-miss-america.pdf

(I also referenced “There She Is, Miss America”: The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America’s Most Famous Pageant” by Watson, Elwood, Martin, Darcy, Watson, Ronald. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/byuprovo/reader.action?docID=10135557&ppg=36)

One of the sources I examined for this post is a letter in anticipation of the historic 1968 Miss America Pageant Protests. It was written August 22, 1968 in New York City by political organizer and activist Robin Morgan. This letter explains why women organized and gathered to declare “no more Miss America” and how these protests were in resistance to historic and contemporary body-image ideals and behavioral expectations of women.

The letter declares that the soon-to-be crowned Miss America will be “your ideal,” but that hopefully “reality will liberate the contest auction-block in the guise of ‘genyooine’ de-plasticized, breathing women.” Apparently women recognized disparities between “real” women and the publicized, pop-culture version of women and their “plasticized” bodies that were idealized and scrutinized in the pageant. This recognition was widespread and disturbing to a variety of women’s groups including “black women, high-school and college women, women’s peace groups, women’s welfare and social-work groups, women’s job-equality groups, pro-birth control and pro-abortion groups- women of every political persuasion- all [were] invited.” The protest was primarily to be against “the image of Miss America, an image that oppresses women in every area in which it purports to represent us.” Among the demonstrations planned, one of the most historically-iconic was that of the “Freedom Trash Can” in which women were invited to dispose of cosmetics, “false eyelashes, wigs, curlers,” clothing, styling products, and any “woman-garbage” that was meant to help them fit traditional standards of beauty.

This demonstration was to feature only females and respond only to female reporters and female policemen, showing that women wanted to make a stand against beauty standards they felt were primarily imposed by men. Finally, Morgan specified “the ten points we protest.” Nearly all of these protests involved the misuse of women’s bodies in some way. They are listed below with Morgan’s explanations, applicable phrases italicized and commentary following.

“1. The Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol. The Pageant contestants epitomize the roles we are all forced to play as women. The parade down the runway blares the metaphor of the 4-H Club county fair, where nervous animals are judged for teeth, fleece, etc., and where the best “Specimen” gets the blue ribbon. So women in our society forced daily to compete for male approval, enslaved by ludicrous “beauty” standards we are conditioned to take seriously.”

Women recognized the pageant as a symbol for what happened in society; women were paraded around and judged on their appearance by men.

“2. Racism with Roses. Since its inception in 1921, the Pageant has not had one Black finalist, and this has not been for a lack of test-case contestants. There has never been a Puerto Rican, Alaskan, Hawaiian, or Mexican-American winner. Nor has there ever been a true Miss Americaan American Indian.”

It is apparent that in the pageant’s history and rules, it favored and promoted a very specific type of racial beauty. According to the pageant’s perspective of America, Miss America must be white and exhibit traditional Caucasian standards of beauty in order to be considered ideal.

“3. Miss America as Military Death Mascot. The highlight of her reign each year is a cheerleader tour of American troops abroad- last year she went to Vietnam to pep-talk our husbands, fathers, sons and boyfriends into dying and killing with a better spirit. She personifies the ‘unstained patriotic American womanhood our boys are fighting for.’ The Living Bra and the Dead Soldier. We refuse to be used as Mascots for Murder.”

“4. The Consumer Con-Game. Miss America is a walking commercial for the Pageant’s sponsors. Wind her up and she plugs your product on promotion tours and TV-all in an ‘honest, objective’ endorsement. What a shill.”

Miss America demonstrated that society’s ideal beauty came at a cost and was also steeped in consumerism. Miss America only appeared as she did because of the products she endorsed.

“5. Competition Rigged and Unrigged. We deplore the encouragement of an American myth that oppresses men as well as women: the win-or-you’re-worthless competitive disease. The ‘beauty contest’ creates only one winner to be ‘used’ and forty-nine losers who are ‘useless.’

“6. The Woman as Pop Culture Obsolescent Theme. Spindle, mutilate, and then discard tomorrow. What is so ignored as last year’s Miss America? This only reflects the gospel of our Society, according to Saint Male: women must be young, juicy, malleable-hence age discrimination and the cult of youth. And we women are brainwashed into believing this ourselves!”

“7. The Unbeatable Madonna-Whore Combination. Miss America and Playboy’s centerfold are sisters over the skin. To win approval, we must be both sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope, demure yet titillatingly bitchy. Deviation of any sort brings, we are told, disaster: ‘You won’t get a man!!’”

This point brought up an important theme that was examined in previous posts about the message of female advertising: conform to stick standards of beauty and behavior, or you will not succeed because you will not attract men.

“8. The Irrelevant Crown on the Throne of Mediocrity. Miss America represents what women are supposed to be: inoffensive, bland, apolitical. If you are tall, short, over or under what weight The Man prescribes you should be, forget it. Personality, articulateness, intelligence, and commitment- unwise. Conformity is the key to the crown and, by extension, success in Society.”

Whether appearance or behavior, women were rigidly told to “conform.” Miss America, again, was a small microcosm of this.

“9. Miss America as Dream Equivalent To-? In this reputedly democratic society, where every little boy supposedly can grow up to be President, what can every little girl hope to grow to be? Miss America. That’s where it’s at. Real power to control our own lives is restricted to men, while women get patronizing pseudo-power, an ermine clock and a bunch of flowers; men are judged by their actions, women by appearance.

The Miss America Pageant ultimately reinforced this to girls and women. The woman who won performed best on stage or looked the best in her outfits. Her intellect and character were much less relevant and men were the ultimate judges of female perfection.

“10. Miss America as Big Sister Watching You. The pageant exercises Thought Control, attempts to sear the Image onto our minds, to further make women oppressed and men oppressors; to enslave us all the more in high-heeled, low-status roles; to inculcate false values in young girls; women as beasts of buying; to seduce us to our selves before our own oppression.”

As other posts have examined, women have frequently been perpetrators of female beauty “oppression” by buying-in to societal standards of beauty and selling “false values” of appearance to upcoming generations.

Miss America was meant to be representative, as suggested in it’s name and title. From its inception, it displayed, profited from, and promoted societal beauty standards. Women (and men) in 1968 apparently recognized this and sought political action to change such blatant promotions of “false values.”

Other women apparently also rejected some of the expectations of the Pageant. For example Yolande Betbeze refused to appear in a bathing suit after she won Miss America, feeling that it was not a good representation of what “Miss America” should be. Because of this, certain sponsors pulled from the competition and began the Miss USA competition. Yolande, however, was involved in women’s liberation and other political action, also defying the Miss America stereotype.

I examined a record of the winners of the Miss America pageant found here that shows the similarity in the bodies of the women who won the pageant and were therefore deemed “ideal.” This is the evidence of Morgan’s claims. The women were nearly all white, averaging “20 years old and 3 months; her average weight is just over 121 pounds; her height is 5 feet, 6-½ inches.” Even the fact that each contestant’s measurements were meticulously recorded until the 1990s suggests that this was an important emphasis of the pageant.




One thought on “Iconic Miss America as a Representation and Rejection of Ideal Beauty in the Mid-Century (8/10)

  1. This is a really valuable look at a common problem. I remember analyzing beauty magazines in high school and recognizing that all of the instructions for how to be beautiful and apply make up or hair products was to get you to some average. They had different eye liner instructions for people with eyes that were wide apart, close together, deep set, etc…This shows how these beauty ideals still stick around, but are very demeaning for the many body types outside the ideal.


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